Potted reviews: Russian Roulette: The Konstantin Files by Keith Nixon, High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard

Keith Nixon’s The Fix impressed me a couple of year’s back (and the sequel of sorts I’m Dead Again is just as good). Both featured a six-feet-five Russian tramp called Konstantin whose skillset is considerably more advanced than that of the average homeless citizen. In The Fix and even in I’m Dead Again he’s more of a supporting character. However, in the cracking collection of novellas called Russian Roulette he takes center stage. Along the way Konstantin encounters bumbling criminals, wannabe hardmen, drugs, dominatrixes, prostitution, fake psychics, and other misfortunes, most of which he deals with using a combination of smarts and fast fists. This anthology is packed with top notch entertainment from start to finish, written in short punchy sentences that capture the right mix of description, action and character. These are fast-paced, action-packed, foul-mouthed stories with a fair dose of heart. Highly recommended.

I recently read J.G. Ballard’s The Drought. It came across as well written but somewhat vague and episodic. It was too drawn out and the characters were too opaque for it to be truly compelling. It didn’t fill me with any compulsion to read any other of the Ballard novels on my shelf in the near future. But then the film of High Rise came out and I decided that I should read the novel before watching the film. And I’m glad I did. The book is, in a word, brilliant. Unlike The Drought this one is all just crazy momentum. It starts with a truly wonderful opening line and gets better from there. Whether viewed as an allegory about status and class, a statement on modern society’s inability to function without its technological trappings, or just as a satire about alienation, this is blistering fiction. I loved every second of it.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. I try to get through at least one or two of his novels every year, just as a palate cleanser. His work always feels like a homecoming of sorts (Leonard was the first crime novelist I read) and Mr Majestyk was no different. It’s basically just a western dressed up in contemporary clothing, but Leonard’s spare writing makes it seem contemporary and fresh. Melon farmer, and former soldier, Vincent Majestyk wants nothing more than to be left in peace to bring in his melon crop, but various people get in the way of this including a mafia hitman. He gets zero help from the ineffectual local police, who actually want to use Majestyk as bait to lure the hitman, so decides to take the law into his own hands and hunt down the bad guys. Like I stated, just like in a western, a small guy gets pushed around by big interests and pushes back with bloody results, but the pleasure comes from the way the tale is modernised and told. Elmore Leonard couldn’t tell a dull story if he tried: his dialogue is always a pleasure to read, his descriptions hit just the right notes of concise, snappy detail, and the action and momentum is just right. If the romance between Majestyk and Nancy Chavez is a bit pat and easy that’s probably because this was Leonard’s second contemporary crime novel (after the relatively low-key The Big Bounce) and he didn’t really hit his stride until the next novel Fifty-two Pickup. But that’s a minor caveat because this is a cracking read otherwise.

So long, Elmore

Elmore Leonard died today.

This was the man who, in 1986, when I was fourteen, broke my crime fiction cherry with LaBrava. Joe, the ex-secret service agent, Jean, the faded movie star, the Miami backdrop – I loved every second and devoured it in one sitting.

I was late for school the next day due to that damn book, because I stayed up until the early hours of the morning reading it. And although my tardiness resulted in the threat of detention I couldn’t really hold it against the writer – he’d given me far too much enjoyment. In fact, I enjoyed LaBrava so much that I bought another four second-hand Elmore Leonard’s the next week – $wag, Stick, Glitz and Cat Chaser – and devoured every one of them.

Over the years I read more Elmore Leonard, a lot more, but kind of took his books for granted, too. They were always a pleasure to read (even the lesser ones), but for some reason, I would go long periods without reading him again. And for the life of me, I’m not sure why, because every time I did there would be the many pleasures of superb dialogue, sparely drawn yet fully rendered characters, controlled storytelling, and a great sense of humour (even when things got grim).

But it’s impossible to take him for granted any more because he’s gone and there’ll be no more trawls through the underworld with blue-collar crims and cops, all of who possessed the kind of patter that made you want to share a beer with them.

And that’s damn shame. My thoughts go out to his family.

So, I’m going to dig out an old copy of LaBrava, turn off the TV, sit back, listen to Maurice Zola spout off about Joe LaBrava’s photographs and let the story take hold.

So long, Elmore.

Potted reviews: Street 8 by Douglas Fairbairn and City Primeval by Elmore Leonard

Douglas Fairbairn wrote, in the form of Shoot, one of my all-time favourite crime novels (although it is ultimately much more than just a crime novel), so I had high hopes for Street 8, a noir set on the sun-bathed streets of Miami.

Bobby Mead, who runs an ailing used-car lot on Eighth Street, or as the latinos call it Calle Ocho, is given an offer he can’t refuse by Cuban gangsters/terrorists. They will give him a sum of money every month for the use of his garage, no questions asked, or they will kill him and his sixteen-year-old delinquent daughter. Mead takes the offer but realises that dealing with the devil comes with a price.

I wish I could say I enjoyed Street 8 but I didn’t. It has massive gaping flaws of logic. During the novel Mead has zero ambition or a particular will to live (something noted by several characters during the course of the novel) and mopes around for much of the narrative, only for him to quickly transmorph into a gringo Che Guevara by the end of the novel. Mead also has sex with his under-age daughter, which, whilst consensual, hardly endears him as a protagonist, and his proclamation of love for her towards the end of the book leaves a sour taste. I’m not a prude, and can deal with stuff like this in a narrative, but it’s hard to find enthusiasm for a protagonist who has sex with his own daughter, even if he does feel remorse. Also, Fairbairn’s prose, so concise and clear in Shoot, comes off here like a poor Hemingway pastiche. It’s a short novel, but its badly balanced pacing means that nothing happens for long stretches only for it to sputter into life occasionally. Disappointing.

In Elmore Leonard’s City Primeval, an unpleasant and unorthodox Detroit judge is killed by a remorseless killer and thief, Clement Mansell, over a driving incident. Taciturn detective, Raymond Cruz, quickly works out that it may be Mansell’s finger on the trigger but proving it is somewhat more difficult – more so, considering that Mansell walked on a murder charge a couple of years before because of a technicality. Killer and cop circle each other constantly, trying to outwit each other until the noirish climax.

Leonard is always a pleasure to read, probably because he does all the little things well. He’s never been spectacular, in the way that James Ellroy or James Lee Burke sometimes can be, but his 70s/80s work rarely misses its mark. He knows how to pace a narrative, knows how to write killer dialogue, knows how to write detail without it overshadowing the story, and knows how to write characters who, though dark, though unpleasant, don’t tip over into caricature or leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Recommended.

Potted Reviews – The Hunted by Elmore Leonard and Blitz by Ken Bruen

The Hunted by Elmore Leonard – Al Rosen is on the run in Israel from some bad gangster colleagues back home in Detroit. So when he plays good Samaritan and rescues people from a hotel fire he draws a lot of attention upon himself – including several hitmen from the mob. And when his duplicitous lawyer turns up with a kiss-off payment from his former business colleagues, Rosen knows he’s going to need to do a lot just to avoid being killed so he can get his hands on the money. So when chance throws a bored and soon-to-be-retired marine his way, he eyes his opportunity to get his money back and deal with those who are after him.

This is the first Elmore Leonard that I’ve read in a couple of years, and it’s always easy to forget just how much of a pleasure he is to read. Cannily constructed plots, sharply drawn characters and dialogue most of us would probably sell our souls to be able to write half as well. The pacing is beautiful and there are surprises galore on the way to a very satisfying finale. Personally, I think the 70s Leonard’s are his finest works and this (written in ’77) is one of his best. Superb stuff from a master!

Blitz by Ken Bruen – A very deluded, but media-savvy serial killer calling himself Blitz is hunting the police and executing them. He has eyes for Sergeant Brant, Roberts and the rest of their pretty corrupt team.

This is my first Bruen, and I liked it a lot. The story is so compelling the pages practically turn themselves. The clipped, spare prose, which makes Elmore Leonard (hardly renowned for flowery sentences) look like Henry James in comparison, is a joy to read. And the characters might be a pretty shitty lot, but they look out for their own (even a scumbag like Brant). The South London setting is also very well realised and Bruen has a great feel for London geography. Highly recommended.

Special interests section…

Noir (regardless of whether it’s classic, neo or psycho) is a niche market, I think we all know that (readers and writers alike). If you are tuned into its wavelength then it’s the wildest ride you can go on. But the fact is that most readers aren’t tuned in, or if they are they’re only tuned in halfway, so that the interference mixes it up with a load of other stuff. It only takes a bit of extra tuning to turn the wavelength all the way.

Harlen Coben, for instance, takes the ordinary man in waaaay over his noggin (a noir staple) and puts a different slant on it; more positive in outlook, more likeable characters, more emphasis on milking all possible suspense and action from the scenario. In the wrong hands this might turn into total crap, but Coben’s got a master’s hand, so he makes it work beautifully, and the audience loves him for it, in droves.

Lee Child takes the hardboiled, laconic, tough as nails hero and sends him into action. Jack Reacher really is just Kells in A Fast One, or Mike Hammer, or any number of hardboiled and western heroes, but put inside a modern-day shell. Readers love him for it, and again in droves.

Elmore Leonard is a great example of a writer who has taken elements of noir and hardboiled fiction and made a tidy audience from it and his publishers have packaged his work superbly, especially in the wake of Jackie Brown (Tarantino’s adaptation of Rum Punch).

George Pelecanos effortlessly straddles noir and hardboiled styles and sells rather well too.

All the elements are there in noir to connect with a modern audience, but somehow the use of the term almost certainly dooms most of its practitioners to the section marked ‘special interests’ or, more bluntly, ‘weird stuff’. You know, that special place that guarantees very few sales.

Then I had a thought, why the hell can’t noir sell in the modern market? Part of the problem is perception: the notion that noir is niche being the main problem; the way it’s sold to the audience is another; and the fact that the Big Six publishers really don’t give a damn about anything other than giving the audience what it thinks it wants is also an issue.

Hard Case Crime seemed like a good start, and I was really excited about a comeback for noir, until I saw those covers. Frankly, they’re not the answer. Don’t get me wrong, they’re nicely designed and illustrated but the whole enterprise screams NICHE! That style of illustration was of its time and it helped sell copies way back when, when you needed to make an instant impression on a concessions stand in a bus or train station, but what is it honestly likely to achieve in this day and age? It’ll sell to people like us, the folks who buy Cornell Woolrich, Jason Starr and Ken Bruen anyway, but what about Mr and Mrs Random Browser? Will they be compelled to buy based on these covers? Somehow I’m not so sure. I hope they succeed, I really do, because I love noir; I love reading it, writing it, watching it; and if they can make it work then maybe they can bring some of those long forgotten masters into the modern age. But I’m still not convinced by their approach.

Personally, I think the right covers and the right kind of marketing can make bestsellers out of anything. The levelling of the playing field by ebooks and the fact that, at the moment at least, Big Publishing can’t compete in price terms means the opportunity to revitalise noir is probably the best it’s ever been.  Sell the readers a wild ride (even if it is a down slide) and there’s no reason why noir can’t make a comeback. Sell readers the kind of crazy shit that only noir can deliver, in spades, and on this new level playing field there’s no reason why we noir practitioners can’t have bestseller after bestseller.

There’s a new age upon us…

Why did you become a crime fiction reader/writer?

I’m always intrigued to find out what makes my (alas, very few) readers and blog readers tick. And as I like to think that we all got into crime fiction because one novel crept through and somehow twisted our young psyches, I’m interested to find out what that novel was and why it had the effect that it did. I’ll kick this list off then…

The book which made me an avid reader of crime fiction was Elmore Leonard’s LaBrava, and I was fifteen. The reason I picked it up was because it had a glowing review on the cover by Stephen King, who at that time was my favourite writer (if the guy had written a laundry list I would have read it). I bought LaBrava, took it home and devoured it in one sitting, which meant that I was late for school the next day (because I stayed up until the early hours of the morning). I enjoyed it so much that I bought another four second-hand Leonard’s the next week. Slowly, but surely, Stephen King’s recommendation meant that he slipped down the league of my favourite writers as I replaced him with Leonard, early James Ellroy and found a couple of ancient and tattered Jim Thompson novels (slightly duff ones though – Texas By The Tail being one of them). The book that really made me want to write crime fiction was the Jim Thompson omnibus, which was published by Picador in 1995. As much as I’d enjoyed Texas By The Tail (though it’s a slightly crappy Thompson, to be honest), the reason I bought the omnibus was because of the introduction by Tim Willocks, whose Green River Rising I had only just recently read. It was enough for me to buy it and race through the four mind-blowing novels within. The Getaway, The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me and Pop 1280 were unlike anything else that I’d read – they blew me away by making me root for their depraved protagonists – and the endings were simply astonishing. After reading Thompson everything felt different, like a whole new world had been opened up to me. I started writing short stories, or devised novel plots (all of them rubbish), with a noir sensibility. And I started seriously ploughing through the work of other noir and hardboiled writers. I had several false starts with novels, but eventually, after reading more Thompson, I went back to my past, borrowed from it, and devised a novel that I thought Thompson himself might have devised if he’d come from the north of England and had a gambling addiction, which pretty much leads me here…

Anyway, readers and writers, post in the comments box below and let me know who it was that turned you into crime fiction fiends? Who knows, we might all pick up a recommendation or two and read something that blows us away.

My all-time favourite crime fiction writers (in no particular order):

Georges Simenon: His most famous creation is the gruff, persistent and wonderfully likeable police detective Maigret – and for those novels alone his entrance into the crime fiction pantheon would be secure. But in addition to his Maigret mysteries (which are a lot less cosy than their reputation might lead you to believe), he also wrote some utterly brilliant noir fiction, or as he put it roman durs. Dirty Snow (aka The Stain in the Snow), The Strangers in the House and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By are utterly superb, cold-hearted fiction, and must have had an impact on that other great French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette. His prose was tight, but densely layered, and his storytelling immaculate. He could tell a complex story in less than 150 pages and not leave the reader feeling in any way cheated – a skill most writers would kill for.

Jim Thompson: Despite what some people might think, Jim Thompson didn’t invent noir fiction, but he sure as hell mastered the art. Plenty of writers got in before Thompson (James M Cain, Cornell Woolrich and, only just, David Goodis, being among the main players) but, at his best, Thompson somehow made the style his own. His worldview was darker than Cain’s, his prose was sparer and his plots less ludicrous than those of Woolrich, and his range was wider than the very narrow territory that Goodis generally ploughed. His best novels are like a surge of amphetamine to the brain; providing the kind of rush that few other authors are capable of: The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and Pop 1280 move so quickly that the bitter, haunting endings seem all the more potent, staying with you a lot longer than it takes to read them.

Raymond Chandler: Some of his plots can be a little scruffy (dead chauffeur, anybody?), but his best novels make you forget about all that. Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are as good as anything you’ll find anywhere else in crime fiction, and Chandler created a character in Philip Marlowe who is as memorable as anything in any kind of fiction. Marlowe is the perfect blend of hard-boiled quips, bitter philosophy, toughness and compassion. When you add in the fact that Chandler wrote some of the best prose of the twentieth century and his style is still aped by crime fiction writers to this day, what you have is one of the most influential writers of all-time. Few writers can evoke a sense of place or personality the way Chandler could and even fewer had his facility with simile and metaphor. Whenever I’ve suffered a few bad books in a row, I pick up a Chandler again and remind myself just how it should be done.

Dashiell Hammett: A brilliant crime novelist who, along with Hemingway, pretty much put the Henry James school of flowery prose to bed for good. His clean, spare camera-eye prose and superb sense of pacing made him the best of his day, and he’s still among the greats to this day. His short stories, mostly featuring the Continental Op, are excellent but the novels, oh wow, the novels (with one exception) are brilliant: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are among the greatest crime novels ever written with The Thin Man only a tad behind. The one duffer in his back catalogue The Dain Curse is still decent, but it doesn’t scale the same heights as the rest of his work. If you haven’t read any Hammett please do so immediately.

James Ellroy: He can often come across in interviews as a complete ballbag but there’s no doubting his brilliance. For the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) alone he would be guaranteed immortality as a writer, but then he wrote the Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover). His short, punchy sentences (particularly in the later works) can take some getting used to, but his sense of pacing is among the best and there are few better writers of action around (try the prologue of Blood’s A Rover if you don’t believe me), added to which his ability to handle plot strands is unparallelled. His worldview is wonderfully grim and if you have the stomach for it I can’t recommend his novels highly enough. However, I have one caveat; his short stories are shit (as is his recent memoir The Hilliker Curse), so avoid those like the plague.

Elmore Leonard: Leonard is the reason I got into crime fiction in the first place, so his place on my list was always guaranteed. Few writers on the planet can write dialogue like this guy, and even fewer writers can make characters stand out with such spare descriptions – his harder than hard-boiled prose makes Hammett look as flowery as Henry James in comparison. The fact that Leonard makes it seem so simple is a testament to his brilliance; writing this spare can come off as childish in the wrong hands. He has written a few less than brilliant novels (especially recently), but novels like LaBrava, Stick, $WAG, Rum Punch and 52 Stick-Up are a good indication of just how good the crime genre can get.

Derek Raymond: It is only in recent years that Derek Raymond has received the credit that has been due to him for a long time – as one of the finest British writers of crime fiction ever. His ‘Factory’ novels (He Died With His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home On Leave, How The Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez) are up there with the best of any  crime fiction, never mind the British stuff. The narrator is damaged, mostly by the murder of his child by his mentally ill wife and by the job itself, but at the beginning of the series has some hope for humanity, as the series winds on this hope turns to bitterness and open clashes with his superiors, some of which are hysterically funny (Raymond was a fine writer of dialogue). By the time the last novel came along, the notorious Dora Suarez, the narrator barely cares about anything but providing justice for the victim. Raymond’s prose was often superb, his musings on modern life were equally sound and few writers wrote pub scenes with half as much life as he does. He edges Ted Lewis as my favourite British crime writer by the thickness of a paperback page!

Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake): The early Stark novels are magnificent stuff. His hero, Parker, is low-life scum. and yet Stark manages the difficult task of making him seem likeable, of making him worthy of carrying an entire series of novels. The recent resurrection of Parker was less successful, in my humble opinion, because his rough edges and his nastiness appear to have been smoothed away ever so slightly, but the early novels are slam-bang entertainment which few other authors are even capable of. Once you pick up a Stark novel I defy you to try and put it down. And writing as Donald Westlake; well, the Dortmunder novels aren’t too shabby either!

Lawrence Block: Few writers are able to straddle the many branches of crime fiction the way that Block does. My personal faves are the brilliant Bernie Rhodenbarr series of novels (wonderful humorous crime creations each and every one of them) and the Matt Scudder series which, like Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ novels, charts the changes in the character as the series progresses. His novel Small Town is also a fine crime thriller and one of the few literary responses I can think of that directly deals with the effects of 9/11. A fantastic writer.

There are plenty of other crime fiction writers who I love (far more than I can list here), but I’m simply listing the ones who really take me there – the ones who’ve somehow shaped my own writing and appreciation of the art of crime fiction.